Lead(H)er: Stella Kim - Founder and CXO at Mixlab
Under no circumstances was Stella Kim going to work in the pharmacy industry. Her parents own an independent pharmacy in New York, where both her father and brother work as pharmacists, but despite well-meaning expectations about her career path, Kim was adamant about pursuing something more creative.
She majored in fine arts and then studied technology design in graduate school to better understand how her creativity could make a positive impact on the world, never suspecting that the pharmacy world would pull her back in.
“I saw the way technology was affecting my parents as they got older,” said Kim, now the Chief Experience Officer at Mixlab, a tech-enabled veterinary pharmacy. “The world changed so quickly, and I kept thinking that technology shouldn’t be something that harmed people, it should really be helping them.”
In grad school, Kim decided to focus her efforts on digital user experience and behavioral design based on game strategy. She began her career at Razorfish, a leading design firm, before eventually leading user experience for Gilt’s men’s vertical, Park & Bond.
After a round of layoffs at Gilt that left Kim searching for a new job, she began to think more carefully about her next move.
“I didn’t want to work on just any project,” she said. “I saw people at big agencies getting stuck on the same client for 10 years and working on things they weren’t passionate about, and I wanted to have more flexibility.”
To do that, Kim freelanced for the next few years for companies like IBM, AKQA, and Saatchi & Saatchi, among others. The experiences gave Kim the chance to learn how different businesses and agencies worked, boosting her skills and preparing her for her next big move.
Kim had been thinking about personalized medicine and the effects of technology on pharmacies like her parents’. She was particularly interested in women’s health and the many ways in which the field could be improved through tech and customization but wasn’t sure whether it was the right place to start.
Then she met Fred Dijols, who introduced her to the opportunities available in the veterinary space. The market was large, but the lack of technology within it surprised Kim, Dijols, and their third co-founder, Vinnie Dam. That, combined with the chance to make a major difference in the industry, led to the creation of Mixlab, which creates and delivers customized medicine for pets. Though Kim initially saw Mixlab as an opportunity to jump into other aspects of healthcare later on, she’s quickly fallen in love with the veterinary world.
As Chief Experience Officer, Kim is responsible for the digital product, marketing, branding, creative, and the overall experience for all vets, pet parents, and employees in addition to company culture. She takes her role in building the company’s culture seriously, hoping to facilitate an environment in which everyone feels like they’re making a difference.
“If you show that you care about people, whether it’s a coworker or a customer, it’s appreciated. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture -- the smallest things go a long way to show them that you care,” Kim said.
Kim is particularly interested in helping Mixlab become the first sustainable pharmacy. Traditionally, pharmacies throw away huge amounts of plastic, and consumers generally aren’t educated on how to dispose of medication properly, both of which can contaminate the environment.
“One of the things I really care about is to make sure that whatever company I build has a positive impact,” she said. “I’m really proud that people have a positive memory of Mixlab.”
Quick Q(uestions) and A(dvice)
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I’m really into fly fishing and rock climbing. I love the outdoors. It’s my heaven, so I want to be out on the river all the time.
How do you typically manage stress?
Going outdoors and finding balance have always been helpful. I think it’s important to step away from all your technology, and I used to go on at least one trip a year where I had no phone or computer. It frees up your mind, and you think about survival in a very different way. It’s about getting to the next campsite or keeping track of the weather. Being offline is more difficult now, so I dance every morning. It warms the body up and it’s very freeing!
How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
Coffee turns me into a very different person, so I drink a cup of tea a day. I really like mint tea, or matcha, green tea, or rice tea.
What’s one of your favorite places in the New York City area?
I like being anywhere near the water, so the Hudson River along the parks on the West Side is nice. I really enjoy Red Hook, with the piers and the art shows. In Dumbo, you can go onto the bridge and walk through a really nice park on the water with a lot of great restaurants.
What do you consider one of your proudest accomplishments so far?
I think it’s Mixlab. I put everything I am into it. In the beginning, my co-founders and I would spend seven days a week in the lab for months until we got a weekend off. It was worth it to me, though. It was hard and tiring, but I still loved it. I’m so excited for the future of our company and for all of us individually. I hope we never lose our way and are always helping people and pets, because at the end of the day we’re trying to do something better for others.
How does where you are right now compare to where you thought you’d be 10 years ago?
I’ve always wanted to start my own thing, so I think in that sense I ended up where I wanted to be. It’s better than I ever could have dreamed. My parents crack up about the fact that I ended up in pharmacy after all, but I feel like I’ve done my best creative work ever here. It’s made me a better designer, pushed me creatively, and made me grow so much as a person.
What’s your advice for recent college graduates?
Time goes by really fast, so don’t waste it on excuses. A long time ago my dad said to me, there are two kinds of people: there’s able people and unable people, and you have to decide which one you want to be. An unable person will always have excuses and never really succeed because they never try, but an able person will do what it takes and put in the work. They don’t give up. One of the key differences between those people is how you define failure, and for me, failure is never trying and giving up too quickly. You might not achieve what you set out to achieve, but that’s not failing—that’s learning. As long as you’re learning, you’re succeeding. I think it’s important for everyone to decide what failure actually means to them before they try to do something.